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Social Sciences

Archaeological Field School Summer Experience

By Justin Uehlein

Photo courtesy of Daniel Sayers.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Sayers.

In early May, American University students, along with professor Daniel Sayers, doctoral student Cyndi Goode, and myself, gathered outside of Hurst Hall in anticipation for the field season ahead. 

We were about to embark on a journey to the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge located in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina to participate in an archaeological excavation centered around better understanding the social conditions of a maroon colony located deep in the interior of the swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp hosted a maroon colony from the early 17th century into the late 19th century ending with emancipation. Escaped, formerly enslaved individuals self-extricated themselves into the interior of the swamp in order to live a life free from enslavement. 

We gathered and prepared to leave for the swamp where Sayers, Goode, and I would teach archaeological methodology to the students while also developing a better understanding of landscape and architectural techniques belonging to the maroon in the swamp. 

When we arrived at the camp at the edge of the swamp, we unloaded our vehicles at the field house and enjoyed the evening, fully aware of the ominous feelings brewing in all of us as we prepared mentally for the next morning and the trek into the Great Dismal Swamp that would ensue. 

The next morning the crew gathered at the breakfast table, ate a hearty meal, and listened as Sayers delved into a talk about navigating the swamp, the site on which we would excavate, and the procedures we would follow to ensure a safe and fun experience when in the interior. After Sayers’s talk we loaded the vehicles with safety gear and excavation equipment and left the comfort of our field house to begin our excursion into the swamp. 

We arrived at the thickly wooded, vine-ridden edge of the swamp. It appeared as an impenetrable wall of vegetation, a stark contrast to the farmland that surrounds it. We piled out of the vehicles and proceeded to put on the protective gear necessary for the hike into the swamp. Most of us wore waist-high waiters to keep dry and snake chaps to protect against bites. After everyone was suited up we began our walk through the swamp, starting with a single file walk across a narrow wooden bridge at the end of which it appeared as if the swamp itself swallowed each person as he or she disappeared into its depth. Our first hike in was arduous and slow. However, as the days passed, our pace picked up allowing for more time at the site. 

As we began our excavations, first removing the topsoil with shovels and then proceeding more slowly with trowels, a picture of life among the maroon colony began to emerge. The artifacts--chipped stone flakes from tool production, gun flints, small glass fragments, nails and more--provided an image of the manner in which those in the maroon lived their day-to-day lives. 

Cut off from the outside world, the maroon largely subsisted on goods they produced themselves within the boundary of swamp. They collected what remained from indigenous people’s forays into the swamp, providing them with stone tools that could be reworked and repurposed. They likely made use of the abundant vegetation for the production of wooden tools as well as a food source, and they had whatever they could carry with them when escaping into the Great Dismal Swamp. The gunflints, nails, and metal that we found likely represent items bought into the swamp during the process of self-extrication. 

While each artifact is incredibly important on its own, it is with the entire collection, including ephemeral markers of past structures, living quarters or otherwise, at the site, that we are able to glean a better understanding of the manner in which people subsisted in the Great Dismal Swamp. The structural remains give us a glimpse at community organization and the location of various artifacts allow us to better understand communal development and the manner in which certain items, such as reworked stone tools, glass, and nails, were shared among those in the maroon colony. 

The archaeology project in the Great Dismal Swamp has been an adventure and an intellectual pursuit that has been both stimulating and physically trying.